tv Tavis Smiley WHUT November 15, 2011 8:30am-9:00am EST
tavis: good evening from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley. tonight a conversation with emmy and tony winner ellen barkin. the latest project from "the veteran act" which is a new program "another happy day." she stars and produce in the movie that opens in l.a. and new york. she took home a tony for her part in "a normal heart." glad you've joined us for a conversation with ellen barkin right now. >> every community has the martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. wal-mart helps treet or make every day better. >> nationwide insurance sports
tavis smiley and working to loviterac ay literacy and remo obstacles one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. ♪ tavis: i'm delighted to welcome ellen barkin to this program, the emmy and tony winning actress had so many notable roles in her outstanding career including her performance in the play "a normal heart." the latest project is a new film "another happy day" which opens this friday in new york and l.a. so here now some scenes from "another happy day." >> what are you doing with him?
you had your fourth rehab four months ago. >> she's with her ex-husband. >> want to make sure she doesn't walk into a emotional, volatile atmosphere. >> it's a wedding. they're not volatile. >> if we could have the groom walk her to her seat. >> i was the one that was always there, not you. >> you so enjoy trying to tear this family apart. >> yes, it did happen. >> why didn't you help me save my children? >> because you're a sociopath. >> elliot said when dad met you were a scumbag. tavis: i promise you i'll get to the movie but want to start, perhaps an unorthodoxed place for some, but where i want to start and i get to make the choices sometimes. i read you studied acting for 10 years, a full decade before you ever did your first audition. >> uh-huh. tavis: that's so unheard of to me to study something for 10
years before you ever take an audition. >> if i were a doctor of anything, of medicine, of philosophy, of political science, wouldn't i be required to study for 10 years? tavis: that's the key word "required" and in acting nobody is. and nobody thinks they're supposed to go a decade before they audition. >> well, i did. i mean, i was trained by method acting teachers, and we were taught that aside from whatever gift you may or may not have or the level of that gift that you were obliged to know how to build the table. it's a craft. it's like being a ballerina or a violinist. would you strap some toe shoes on and dance? no. would you just put a violin in
your hand? no. and i felt that way about acting. and i was taught to feel that way. i didn't come to it on my own. and by the time i auditioned, i felt that i knew how to do the job. i might not be great at it, but i certainly knew how to do it. like i know how to open up a chest if i had to perform open heart surgery, not equating the two, but you have to learn it and i learned my craft. and then i felt comfortable enough to kind of navigate with a i knew could be a very debilitating process, which is auditioning and most often not getting jobs. tavis: what happened after a decade that made you finally
feel you were good enough or you were prepared to hit the audition circuit? >> well, i had a few brilliant teachers. one of them was a man named lloyd richards who was the premiere interpreter of all of atol fugard's work in this country. i studied acting with him for about 3 1/2 years in hunter college. and one day he said remember. he said it to the whole class, when you audition for something, all these nerves you all are going to experience and insecurities, those people in the room want nothing more than for their search to end with you. they want you to get that job. and that resonated with me, and i thought wow, if you approach
this as if you're the answer to their problem, it completely different spin on it. and he, you know -- i mean, he was one of the main shapers of the way i do my job and the way i approach the business of doing my job, my responsibility for it, my personal responsibility to myself, my social responsibility. he was an extraordinarily human being and put me on a very clear -- ultimately very fulfilling path. tavis: i'll tell you right quick before i go any further, 2011 is my 20th year in the business doing this. i've been at this two decades now, and i talked to a thousands actors and never, ever heard an answer that delicious about auditioning. i said many times if i had any talent, if i had any. i never can be an actor because i don't have a constitution strong enough to take being
rejected that often but when you flip 180 degrees as you just did and see your gift as the solution to their problem, these people don't want to do a gazillion auditions. i never thought about it that way. >> no. and i don't think most people do. but he did. he is a brilliant, brilliant man. tavis: speaking of auditions, everybody gets rejected. it's the path to success, the path of winning tonys and emmys and academy awards. you have to go through a bunch of rejections. i get that. but your stuff is almost, i mean, to my mind, when you're told -- and i'm just repeating what i've read. >> go ahead. hit me. tavis: you're told how unpretty you are. >> i wouldn't say unpretty. i would say ugly. that's what i was told, ugly. tavis: i'm trying to be charitable and generous. when you were told you were ugly, unpretty, that you were not talented, you were told, your parents were told, get her out of 24 class, she has no gift, no talent, she will never make it. >> no spark. that was the big -- tavis: and you stuck with it.
>> yeah, i'm tenacious i think, i know. and i also -- i do also have a quality where you tell me i can't do something -- if i know i can't do it, i'm the first to raise my hand and say i can't do that. but there is a big bronx, you know, new york jew in me that just said really? really? you think i -- yes, i can. i can do it. i can do it. and i just -- it just made me fight harder, like i got angry. it did make me angry. i wasn't thrilled about it. but i just thought, i know i can't curse but i did think, screw them, screw them. yeah, i know what i look like, and i know that it's not a model space.
i get it. but i think i have a little spark. tavis: but why not, ellen, take that path, which is to say, as you mentioned moments ago, screw them. why not say they don't deserve me, if they don't know i'm gifted or talented enough, i'll do something else. there are people every day who decide to go the other route because they feel like they can't convince whomever that they're qualified for this, they go another route and say forget it. but you didn't. >> no. because i did it for myself, i think. i needed to -- i believed i could do it. i mean, i knew i wasn't going to get like a tv commercial selling, you know, makeup or anything. but i thought i could answer their problems. and that's why i was so dogged, like i would force my poor agent to tell me what they
said. and he would always say, you just didn't get the part, like move on, on to the next. tavis: why did you want to hear that? >> i wanted to know what the problem was so i could solve it. so if they said not sexy instead of me coming to an audition in baggy pants and a shirt, i'd put a skirt on, you know. the ugly thing i couldn't do was nothing i could do. tavis: i pressed on that point because, again, reading about your life for years, it always fascinated me how you and others i admire and respect take the negative, what they mean for evil and turn it into good. you take the negative and turn it into a positive. so you're forcing your agent to tell you what they said precisely because you want to figure out another way to do everything you can -- >> right. tavis: absent those things you can't touch. >> correct. tavis: that's a brilliant strategy, though, to take what you can do and make it work. >> i'm going to get a little political here but. tavis: please. i can handle that. >> isn't that what is going on
in this world? and first, i personally would like to thank you for doing your job, for your poverty tour with dr. cornell west, for letting someone like van jones be heard for focusing on the poor, which seems to have been forgotten in this equation of the middle class struggling. yeah, but too many poor people. but isn't that what -- isn't that exactly what's going on in this country? isn't our president trying to say, ok, i know what i can't do, tell me very specifically what you won't let me do, and then i will try to do as much good as i can. i see it all as the same thing, i really do. and in some ways, it's made me
like much more politically present and involved. and maybe because i relate to it personally right now. i have a personal connection with this struggle. look at these millions and millions of people who are being told, no, you can't. no, you can't get a job. no, you can't eat. no, you can't read. no, you can't go to the doctor. i felt like that personally as a young woman. and it's -- i mean, it's not the same. i know that. and one is very profound and one is the job of entertainment. but there is a kind of parallel, like a visceral reaction i have to all of this because it's what i did as a young woman, like let me understand exactly how bleak and grim this situation is.
tavis: so why, ellen -- i'm trying -- why choose acting, then. i mentioned earlier with, there are very few pursuits in life where you get told no that often. if you're getting told no that often and getting told no in such ugly ways, why be a thespian? why not do something else? >> i don't know. i know i grew up as they say hard, in a very working class family, and my first introduction to acting was really based on the fact i didn't want to go to my neighborhood high school, jamaica high school in queens. i just didn't want to take two buses. i didn't want to get up in an hour. i knew it was not a great high school. and i said, is there another public school i can go to? and so i auditioned in and then i immediately got -- i mean,
told no would be an understatement. but i immediately felt under attack and an enormous amount of really negative pressure, and that's when the kind of street fighter in me stepped up and said uh-uh. tavis: how do you keep from being bitter in the midst of all that? >> i don't know where bitterness comes into it. i've been too lucky to be bitter. tavis: not initially you weren't. >> i don't know. i heard bad things but i wound up getting beautiful parts onstage. my first movie was "diner." my second movie was "tender mercies." i did really good work, yeah. i think i didn't get offered a job between "diner" and "tender mercies." i think it was 18 months or
something. but i never got one offer. but i just -- i just kept waiting tables and i just kept saying, i'll just keep studying and i just kept studying. i don't -- bitterness -- i've been way too -- so much of this business has to do with luck. there are thousands of people more talented, certainly prettier than me but than anyone we see on screen who aren't in the right place at the right time. and i've been lucky enough to be able to work and do work that for the most part i'm proud of. now, we all have jobs that we have to take in order to pay the bills and support ourselves, but for the most part -- and, you know, i can look at 10 movies that i turn down and just think, what was i
thinking? but if i go through the specifics of it, i think oh, you know what, i'd make the exact same choice today even though it might have cost me like movie star a-list status or a trip to the oscars or a trip to the tonys. but i made them for reasons, you know, very specific reasons, usually having to do with money from someone. and another actor who could make me a better actor. tavis: speaking of your film ok if i -- filmography, everyone who makes you familiar, "sea of love." i read you weren't even all that crazy about that project, did i misread that? >> no, you did not. i was very crazy about al pacino, and i would have done the phone book with al pacino, because also, you think what if i never get offered another movie with al pacino?
what if i never get to act with al pacino and i die? so i just said yes. i think, also, i was like -- i was literally the last girl alive that got that offer because there was a -- i think a consensus among every actress my age that because that character came in midway through the movie that it wasn't a substantial enough role. i never cared about those things. i cared about one actor to learn from, one speech i would get to say. one director. so i don't think the director embraced any aspect of me, let me just say. and were it not for my brilliant and extremely humane co-star, mr. pacino, i probably couldn't have gotten out of my trailer. tavis: i get the idea of doing
things because you want to learn from person x, y, or z, so for all the hell you had to endure to getting that thing made, but the director, did you get what you wanted out of the relationship with mr. pacino in terms of learning? >> oh, he taught me so much. you know, ee runs the actors studio with ellen bersten and harvey kaitel. and these were actors like them that taught me and mentored me, so there was nothing but learning from al, just the way he approached it, the dedication, his -- i mean, talk about someone who never gives up. and we would improvise for three hours for scenes that we were going to shoot sometime over the course of the next 3 1/2 months or whatever it was. i mean, it is a dedication to
-- and a respect for what he does. he's never going to give you less than more than he has. tavis: somebody over to the side, when it does happen, they'll send me a note you haven't talked about the film, like i'm stupid. there it is. see. ask her about her movie. i can't help it. her life is so fascinating i didn't get around to the film. but you offered me a segue to talk about the film which i'm glad to have you on here for. you mentioned "diner" 30 years ago and were in "the fathers" director debut and 30 years later you're in the son's director debut. talk about how it is. >> it's not lost on me. and also, it's not just the full circleness of it, but i will say that the role barry levinson of offered me in
"diner and the role i played and the character i see, it's now the 30th anniversary of "diner" and there are some things being done, so i rewatched the movie. that part is probably the closest emotionally, the closest role i ever played considering where i was at that time. 30 years later. sam levinson has me again as close to my pain and secrets as i have ever been in my career, and that's what amazes me, like it's something much more complex, because from both this father and son, i don't know, both of them seemed to see something in me that was as
honest and raw and close to who i am at that particular time. tavis: tell me about your character. >> well, look, i think that there's very few taboos obviously left in hollywood, like you could do anything. this idea of a mother that is pretty much 99.9% of mothers in the world, which is a mother that wants to be a better mother to her children than her mother was to her, a mother who just wants what's best for them. and makes big mistakes. i don't see it. that population does not have an honest voice. you can be a caricature, nutty, flaky, crazy mother, or you can do what -- you can give what
that brilliant monique gave in "precious" where she managed to play an extremely abusive mother and crack my heart open. that's ok because that mother could be defined as abusive. the brilliance in that was monique didn't play that mother that way. now, what you don't have is just a mother like i'm a mother of two grown children. i have made mistakes. some of them big, some of them not so big. and at my age at 57 with my kids the age they are, what i grapple with right now is how profound were the big mistakes, how will they resonate with my children as they move into their own adulthood. and so there's no way i could not have played this part and not played it with the
commitment to my own personal connection, and it's a frightening role because she's not a very sympathetic character for a lot of the time. she makes a lot of mistakes. and it was very difficult because sometimes i'd think it's too much, it's too much. and you don't want to repel audiences, obviously. and i would look to my brilliant mentor and co-star ellen bersten and say, is it too much? and she would say go ahead, try to play the scene another way. don't lose the honesty of your character, ellen. remember your work. remember how you work and go try. and i couldn't. and it was gut wrenching work. i mean, it was grueling. it was like every day i just had to sit and think about what
did i do to my children? where did i make my mistakes? and how impactful are those mistakes going to be? tavis: i suspect there's not another alive that doesn't wrestle with these questions. >> that's the voice i don't see. and i feel socially responsible to say hey, this is what women are really like. i don't know suzanne smith. you know, i don't know someone who drives her kids into a lake and kills them in the car. but i come know -- but i do know that character of lynn. she's me and everyone else i know. and you say oh, i get it because hollywood, right, old story, run by men, and it's the mother and it's either a saint or somebody you can try to well, that's an abusive mother. sometimes you just can't do it. and i think motherhood is still
sacrosanct in movies and shouldn't be. why? parents make mistakes. tavis: hi, mom. i still love you. >> hi, mom. i love you, too, mom. tavis: the project is called "another happy day." as i mentioned earlier in the program, 30 years ago she was in "diner" barry levinson's director debut and you know how that turned out and we're still talking about it 30 years later. you might want to catch his son's debut, sam levinson in "another happy day" starring ellen barkin. they don't give you enough time around here. i could have done this a few more hours. >> i'm honored to be here. tavis: that's our show for tonight. see you next time on pbs. until then, good night from l.a. thanks for watching and as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show visit firstname.lastname@example.org. tavis: join me next time with author amy waldman on her first ever novel plus the musician chris isaak.
that's next time. see you then. >> every community has the martin luther king boulevard. it's the cornerstone we all know. it's not just a street or boulevard but a place for wal-mart to stand together with your community to make every day better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley with every question and every answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy b economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. ♪ captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org--